SNOW HILL – The multi-million-dollar price tag associated with bringing broadband to Worcester County isn’t deterring elected officials.
The Worcester County Commissioners last week asked a Chestertown company to return in April with a plan to deploy fiber throughout Worcester County in three years.
“If we have to bond money to get it done, we bond it,” Commissioner Ted Elder said. “It’s just imperative. Everything’s depending on it.”
Bringing high speed internet to the rural parts of the county has been a priority of the commissioners for years. The pandemic, and the months of remote working for many adults as well as the virtual learning expected of local students, highlighted the connectivity issues residents in Worcester’s rural neighborhoods have dealt with for years. While the school system provided mobile hotspots to those who needed them, students in remote areas often still struggled to join Zoom sessions and watch online videos from their teachers when schools were closed for in-person instruction.
Annette Wallace, the school system’s the school system’s chief academic and operating officer for grades 9-12., acknowledged that distance learning had emphasized the need for more reliable internet throughout the county.
“We are grateful to the county commissioners for their continued focus on this issue,” she said. “It is imperative that our students and their families have equitable access to reliable internet connectivity. This pandemic has exposed a significant gap in accessibility for many of our families. We look forward to working with the commissioners as they move forward with this initiative.”
Though a recent broadband study estimated countywide costs close to $50 million, the commissioners last week said they still wanted to see a proposal from Talkie Communications regarding the feasibility of installing fiber in three years. Commissioner Chip Bertino said fiber was no different than any other county infrastructure.
“Broadband connectivity is not a luxury nor should it be viewed as such,” he said. “There are multiple internet carriers doing business within our county. But their economic viability models focus on population density. They are businesses focused on maximizing their bottom lines. The reality is that much of our county is not densely populated and as such these areas are less attractive to providers who cannot justify the return on infrastructure investment.”
Bertino said that at this point in the 21st century, access to broadband was a necessity.
“For this reason, this is a narrowly defined circumstance when government has a responsibility to bridge the chasm created when business is unable to fulfill the needs of our residents, homeowners and business owners,” he said. “No different than our road system, water and sewer systems and the electrical grid, broadband is an infrastructure capital asset that must be in place to meet the needs of Worcester County residents now and in the future.”
He believes that with the newfound prevalence of remote working, with better internet access Worcester County could become a destination for those who want the quality of life here.
Commissioner Josh Nordstrom pointed out that it could also help bring new businesses—and jobs—to the county.
“We need more and better jobs here,” he said. “It’s hard to sell that when you don’t have reliable internet.”
As work, school and even applying for jobs is now done online, he says it’s imperative the county do what it can to expand broadband.
“It’s such an important part of everyday life we need to make it available to our citizens,” he said.
Elder, who campaigned on expanding broadband access in 2014, says he feels the county is finally on the verge of making it happen. Though the process has been slow, he said certain pieces—such as the county’s extensive broadband study—had to be in place before officials could select a partner. Now that that partner, Talkie Communications, has been selected, the company can pursue grants to help bring access to Worcester County.
“I’m a lot more optimistic now than I have been in the past,” Elder said.
And while the cost associated with the project will be high, Elder says that between grants and the bond market, Worcester County will be able to move forward.
“We’re finally getting somewhere,” he said.
Talkie Communications has been asked to return to Worcester County April 6 to present the commissioners with information on the cost and logistics associated with installing fiber throughout the county in the next few years.
“We’ll have to look at what we can do,” Nordstrom said. “We will have that and many other things to discuss during budget deliberations.”